Judge Gordon Sullivan feels wronged when he sees a dull movie.
"Would you give up twenty years to prove a stranger's innocence?"
As paradoxical as it might seem, a good story and good storytelling do not necessarily go together. Countless times we cinemagoers have seen interesting, headline-grabbing situations turned into boring films, while other films make even the most mundane activities interesting for 90 or more minutes. The former case is generally pretty depressing, but is made all the more so when the story being adapted is not only interesting, but socially relevant to a wide variety of people. Such is the case with The Wronged Man, which tells the true story of a wrongfully convicted man being vindicated through seventeen years of work by a female paralegal. It's a story that should be edge-of-the-seat, full of triumphs and setbacks, with an important lesson to teach all of us about how justice is served in our country. Instead, it meanders for 90 minutes, hitting the predictable highlights and telling the story in the easiest, most obvious way, all along missing opportunities to engage and educate the audience.
The year is 1981, and a ten-year-old girl is brutally raped in Shreveport, Louisiana. Despite sketchy eyewitness accounts from the young girl and her even younger companions, and a general lack of physical evidence, Calvin Willis (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life without possibility of parole. Several years later, his case came to the attention of paralegal Janet Gregory (Julia Ormond, Inland Empire), who after very little digging discovered the huge holes in the case against Willis. That began a seventeen-year journey towards setting Calvin free that was not without its price for both Gregory and Willis.
The Wronged Man is not a train wreck. It's a perfectly watchable movie, with a plot that moves towards an inevitable conclusion in a timely fashion with no serious offenses to cinematic taste. Instead, it's merely paint-by-numbers: bland and inoffensive. It's obvious in every single way, from the plot the audience knows the end of to the fact that Gregory's son is watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in one scene. This is the kind of film where, when asked why she's helping Willis, Gregory answers "Because this case reeks of injustice." Ostensibly the film is about Gregory and Willis, but other than her dedication and his innocence, there's no real insight into their relationship or psychology. Eventually we learn that Willis is angry that his wife remarried and that Gregory was raped, but these feel more like narrative conveniences than insights into their characters.
The Wronged Man is therefore just a rote recitation of the facts of the case, which is tragic. The Innocence Project (which played a part in getting Willis released) makes a big point on its website about educating the public about how and why wrongful convictions occur. They've broken down the different problems (like witness misidentification and bad lawyering) and explain them. It's obvious that several of these scenarios contributed to Willis' conviction (perhaps even criminally), but The Wronged Man doesn't feel like an indictment of the justice system. In fact, although we see Gregory get rejection after rejection in the appeals process the audience is kept at arm's length from anything legal. The opportunity to indict or even discuss the justice system is glossed over, and since the film doesn't offer a particularly compelling narrative or psychological portrait of the characters, the lack of even this basic message is felt even more strongly.
The single aspect that keeps The Wronged Man from sinking into lower rungs of the made-for-TV world is the acting. Casting Julia Ormond was a masterstroke. More glamorous looking than the real-life Willis, Ormond has the face and gravity to pull off the brutal emotional journey towards exoneration. Mahershalalhasbaz Ali (who our own Clark Douglas noted was "spectacularly named" in his review of Predators) is honestly not given much to do as Calvin Willis other than look grave, but he's painfully convincing in the few scenes of conflict he has with Ormond. The rest of the cast is a little more faceless, but they're uniformly convincing.
On DVD, The Wronged Man is treated fine. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfers looks decent, with a muted color scheme and no serious compression problems, even in some of the darker prison scenes. It looks a little bit better than broadcast quality, but I doubt it was designed to be visually mind-blowing. The audio keeps the dialogue in the front and well-balanced. The lone extra is a short "making-of" that's really clip heavy, but does include input from Ormond and Ali about the characters and the film. Portuguese subtitles are supposed to be optional on this feature, but I wasn't able to turn them off; your mileage may vary.
The Wronged Man is a well-made but uncompelling look at an interesting case of wrongful conviction. Despite strong performances from Julia Ormond and Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, the film continually falls into easy, obvious choices that don't illuminate the characters or the situation. Worth a rental for those who enjoy the actors, or who are interested in the case but don't want to read about it.
Calvin Willis was obviously exonerated, but The Wronged Man is guilty.
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